Tragedy and Horror of the USS Indianapolis
Late July 1945, the warship USS Indianapolis is on a secret mission to deliver components of the first atomic bomb to American B-29 bombers stationed on the Pacific Island of Tinian. After a successful delivery of the payload, the Indianapolis heads west towards Leyte Gulf to join the battleship USS Idaho (BB-42) in preparation to invade Japan. Before reaching its new destination, the USS Indianapolis is attacked.
Minutes after midnight, at 12:14am on July 30th, the warship was struck by two of six torpedoes fired by an I-58 Japanese submarine. 19-year-old seaman, Loel Dean Cox, was on duty on the bridge and later recalled the moments after the first torpedo slammed into the Indianapolis: “Whoom. Up in the air, I went. There was water, debris, fire, everything just coming up and we were 81ft (25m) from the water line. It was a tremendous explosion. Then, about the time I got to my knees, another one hit. Whoom.
“The first torpedo blew away the bow and the second one struck near midship almost tearing the ship in half. I turned and looked back. The ship was headed straight down. You could see the men jumping from the stern, and you could see the four propellers still turning.
“Twelve minutes. Can you imagine a ship 610ft long, that’s two football fields in length, sinking in 12 minutes? It just rolled over and went under,” said Cox, who passed away at the age of 88 in 2015.
The torpedo attack and subsequent sinking of the USS Indianapolis was just the beginning of the horror. Nearly 900 of the 1,196 crewmen on board made it into the water in the twelve short minutes before the ship sank. Unfortunately, few life rafts were released, meaning most survivors were in the water with only had the standard kapok life jacket to keep them afloat. From sunrise of the first day until rescue four days later, the men in the water were under continual and relentless shark attack.
Accidentally spotted by a Navy plane, PV-1 Ventura Bomber, on routine antisubmarine patrol, survivors of the USS Indianapolis were finally rescued fours days after the loss of their ship. The crew of the PV-1 Ventura Bomber called an emergency alert to the USS Cecil Doyle (DD-368) who immediately changed course to start the rescue operation. Hours ahead of the destroyer, the crew of the Ventura flew back around to drop rubber rafts and supplies. Flying overhead, they witnessed sharks attacking the men, but were unable to do anything but watch the ordeal in complete horror.
Of the approximate 900 survivors of the torpedo attack, only 317 were rescued. Nearly 600 men died over those four days from exposure and shark attack by non-stop hordes of tiger sharks and oceanic white tips.
The sinking of the USS Indianapolis is remembered as the worst American naval disaster of World War II.
For a little more perspective, here’s a famous quote about the USS Indianapolis tragedy from the 1975 movie, “Jaws”:
Quint: Mr. Hooper, that’s the USS Indianapolis.
[Hooper immediately stops laughing]
Hooper: You were on the Indianapolis?
Brody: What happened?
Quint: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer. You know how you know that when you’re in the water, Chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know… was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. Heh.
[he pauses and takes a drink]
Quint: They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. Y’know, it’s… kinda like ol’ squares in a battle like, uh, you see in a calendar, like the Battle of Waterloo, and the idea was, shark comes to the nearest man and that man, he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’, and sometimes the shark’d go away… sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. Y’know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’… until he bites ya. And those black eyes roll over white, and then… oh, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’, the ocean turns red, and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and they… rip you to pieces.
Quint: Y’know, by the end of that first dawn… lost a hundred men. I dunno how many sharks. Maybe a thousand. I dunno how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday mornin’, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland- baseball player, boatswain’s mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up… bobbed up and down in the water just like a kinda top. Upended. Well… he’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. Young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper. Anyway, he saw us and come in low and three hours later, a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. Y’know, that was the time I was most frightened, waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a life jacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water, three hundred sixteen men come out, and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.
[he pauses, smiles, and raises his glass]
Quint: Anyway… we delivered the bomb.